West Virginia

Analysis: Disappointment for West Virginia?

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Gary Jennings. — PHOTO COURTESY OF DAVID PENNOCK

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — Every season since joining the Big 12 Conference, West Virginia's football team has had the realistic expectation of finishing atop the league.

Though the outwardly spoken goal of this year's team was to do just that, there was a sense of more — higher expectations. So, the question remains: Does not making it to the College Football Playoff mean the 2018 football season mean disappointment for West Virginia?

The short answer: Yes. It wasn't the three losses, but rather how the losses unfolded. All three lost games were very winnable, and West Virginia blew it each time.

Against Iowa State, West Virginia barely managed 150 yards of total offense and sputtered while putting up just seven points. Against Oklahoma State, the Mountaineers blew a 17-point halftime lead and lost by four. Against Oklahoma, West Virginia had the game in hand until a 14-point swing buried the Mountaineers in a three-point defeat.

Those three losses put West Virginia fourth in the Big 12 at season's end, behind Oklahoma, Texas and Iowa State.

Through talks of a Heisman Trophy and the off chance that the Mountaineers could have a shot at a national championship, Will Grier remained adamant that the team's goal was to be 1-0 each week. On eight occasions, West Virginia met that goal. On three others, it did not.

Dana Holgorsen, however, was open about his expectations of a conference championship. The prospect of playing in the Big 12 Championship in Dallas was a reality until a three-point loss to Oklahoma happened Friday.

“We didn’t make our goal,” Holgorsen after the regular-season finale. “Not going to the Big 12 Championship is a damn shame. I think everybody would understand we were close. We beat one of them (Texas), and we almost beat the other.”

But the fact of the matter is, West Virginia beat one team with a winning record all season — Texas. The seven other teams finished the regular season with a combined record of 40-55.

With how the league shaped up, West Virginia's lone loss of the year should have been Oklahoma, and even that game was winnable. There's no excuse for how the offense played against Iowa State. And even though things fell apart in the second half against the Cowboys, West Virginia still had a shot at the end zone to win it.

Iowa State, at least, is 7-4 after starting the year 0-2, but the Cyclones' lone signature win is against West Virginia after Oklahoma State finished 6-6. The Cyclones still have one game left after a Week 1 game was cancelled, but that is against FCS Drake.

Offensively, West Virginia's offense struggled at times. With Grier at the helm, it was almost assumed that the offense would be explosive. But, the Mountaineers started slow in almost every game this season. Against teams such as TCU, Kansas and Kansas State, West Virginia recovered from slow starts to win handily. A slow start against Iowa State never materialized into much offense, and West Virginia lost its first game of the season at the hands of the Cyclones.

Still, Grier finished the season with 3,864 yards on 266-of-397 passing (67 percent). He tossed 37 touchdowns against eight interceptions and is a Maxwell Award semifinalist.

Receivers stepped up this year, too. One year after catching just one touchdown, Gary Jennings caught 13 of them this year. He finished with 917 yards on 54 catches. David Sills built on his solid career by catching 61 passes for 896 yards and a team-high 15 touchdowns. Both finished in the top five among receiving touchdowns for the year nationwide. Marcus Simms even had a decent year, totaling 699 yards on 46 receptions, scoring twice.

Rushing wise, three running backs had at least 440 yards on the ground and four touchdowns. Kennedy McKoy led the way with 729 yards and seven touchdowns for a unit that seemed to be hit or miss all season.

As an offense, West Virginia averaged 42.7 points and 520.4 yards per game. In the Big 12, West Virginia ranked second in both categories behind only Oklahoma.

Though overall numbers seem to be on point, the Iowa State loss could almost be solely pinned on the offense, despite the fact that the defense missed a total of 31 tackles. But the defensive unit did make stops in the second half that game. The offense just couldn't capitalize.

Still, the defense isn't blameless, overall. A look at the numbers show a vast difference between wins and losses.

In wins inside the Big 12 this season, West Virginia allowed only 21.1 points and 349.3 yards per game. In the three losses, the Mountaineers gave up 44.7 points and allowed 591.3 yards per game.

That could be attributed to the fact that six of their top seven linebackers were hurt much of the season. It also could have been that the defensive secondary struggled. It could have been that the pass rush wasn't as effective after Big 12 play picked up.

Whatever it was, teams figured out a way to manhandle Tony Gibson's unit.

David Long did all he could this year, setting a single-season West Virginia record with 19.5 tackles for loss. Kenny Robinson had an efficient year at safety, totaling 75 tackles while picking off three passes and breaking up four total passes. He also forced a fumble.

But West Virginia's defensive line only had 8.5 sacks this season, and five of those came within the first five games. In the three losses, not a single player had a sack. And when West Virginia gave up 41 points and 520 yards to Texas, only Long had a sack.

When the defensive line lacked production rushing the passer, teams found time to light up the scoreboard against the Mountaineers.

Special teams were fine this season. No big plays stood out one way or the other. Evan Staley was 12 of 16 on field goal tries. He was 2-for-4 on kicks from 40-49 yards but 0-for-2 on kicks beyond that. He made all of his 59 point-after tries.

When it comes down to it, yes, West Virginia's season was disappointing overall considering the expectations surrounding the program this year. If the Mountaineers can't even salvage a bowl win, this season will fall right in line with that fateful season that was ruined by another team covered on this site.

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